OZ-Catraz – My Aussie Odyssey


I’ve never been so glad to see a horlicks and a hob nob. Why? Well, I’ve just got back to Britain after a two month Sydney lockdown. My Oz Odyssey felt like a time warp. Quarantining, mandatory mask wearing, social isolating… Had I accidentally boomeranged back to Britain 18 months ago? With what envy we gazed at free and open Australia back then.

When the pandemic broke, Australia pulled up the drawbridge. Allowing no visitors in or out resulted in zero transmission. How we drooled over photos of Aussies cavorting at concerts and barbecuing beach-side. My Aussie pals exceeded the daily recommended allowance of smug. How complacent they were, in their Covid-free castle.

But how the tables have turned. Instead of using that time to vaccinate, Scott Morrison – clearly a few sausages short of a barbie – told Australians to “sit back and enjoy a box seat” while watching rollouts in the UK. Consequently, of the 37 members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Australia ended up bottom in the vaccination league table. It’s been a stroll out, not a roll out. Clearly the man was going to procrastinate but didn’t quite get around to it.

Morrison’s Fortress Australia policy also meant that it was impossible for Aussies to get home. His flight caps left up to 50,000 Antipodeans stranded overseas. When Mum was admitted into intensive care over Christmas I was so desperate to get home I tried to hire a lone yachtsman with a penchant for funny feminists. After a harrowing month, she got better but my homesickness did not. After much haggling, I finally secured a flight that would get me home in time for her 90th birthday.

Landing at Sydney airport, the welcome mat was rolled up. Military personnel ushered my double-vaxxed carcass onto a bus. It was like being in some Cold War espionage drama. I was whisked by a police escort straight to a quarantine hotel and locked in my room.

Sadly, there weren’t even any strip searches to enliven the long, dull days of incarceration. All I could do was eat chocolate (I should have bought a cocoa plantation to cut out the middle-man) and drink. Although I tried to limit my intake to only two or tee martoonies a night, subsequent energetic dancing to thundering disco renditions of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” meant there was clearly little chance I’d get paroled for good behaviour.

When the wardens eventually released me back into the community, I wandered dazed into a deserted city. A taxi driver wearing what looked like a bio-hazard suit and an aqualung, drove me home. The relief of seeing Mum again after 18 long, worrying months, was worth all the expense and hassle. We hugged until our arms went numb, laughing and crying simultaneously. In short, our spirits knew nothing of Sir Isacc Newton and his absurd gravitational theories. Mum’s extravagant 90th birthday bash was cancelled of course. Her party involved just the two of us, dancing around a cup cake, wearing tiaras, with family zooming in.

Being reunited with my beloved matriarch was off the scale on the joy-ometer, but what about all my other treasured friends and family? Sadly, there was no chance of seeing them. Traveling more than 5 km out of your LGA (Local Government Area) incurs hefty fines. And exercise is only permitted with one other, meaning I couldn’t even meet my three much loved sisters simultaneously.

I was now gazing back at Britain with envy. All my Pommy pals were dancing at concerts and sending holiday snaps as they sipped cocktails at beach parties in Greece and Ibiza.

Meanwhile, with hairdressers and waxing salons closed since June, Sydney mens’ mops grew wilder and women’s bodies got hairier. (I didn’t like my beard at first – but then it grew on me.) Watching the NSW premier talking about getting back to Zero transmissions, I felt like a visitor from the future: “Get real”, I’d call out to the TV, “You can’t keep Covid out forever nor keep borders closed.” These were veiled comments, obviously, as mask wearing is compulsory. “The answer isn’t lockdowns. It’s vaccines.”

But where were Australia’s vaccines? The PM kept assuring the nation that the country had plenty, but where had he hidden them? Down wombat holes?

But there have been funny moments too. The South Australian Health Officer tried to stop a football game being played in Adelaide, as she was worried about COVID transmission. She voiced her worries like this – “If that ball gets kicked into the stands, don’t touch it! Do not touch those sweaty men’s balls!” Cue hysterical laughter across the nation.

And talking of sweat, my convict ancestors were guilty of one thing only – not running fast enough. I was powerwalking with a pal when I also found myself on the run from the law. A big beefy copper demanded to know why our faces weren’t covered. I pointed out that masks are not obligatory when exercising. “If you can talk while you walk then you’re not exercising fast enough,” this truly petty officer declared. With a three thousand dollar fine looming, I weighed up my options – literally. The policeman had clearly never said no to a meat pie. “Run!” I shouted to my trim, slim friend. As we ducked down a back street, then crawled along on our elbows, like commandos dodging enemy fire, I felt sure my convict ancestors would be rattling their chains with pride.

Meanwhile, back in London, my autistic son was fretting. But if it had been hard to get into Australia, it proved even harder to get out. I had to apply to the government for a travel exemption. It was a nail-gnawing wait for my London family till permission was finally granted.

Saying goodbye to my mother was unbearably poignant, as I didn’t know then when the Australian government would allow me back again. International travel is expected to reopen for the double-vaxxed by Christmas but it’s no comfort for the many older Brits desperate to be reunited with their children and grandchildren.

Invisible tumbleweeds blew about Sydney’s eerily deserted international airport. Arriving back to Heathrow on Monday felt equally surreal. I blinked into the sunlight like a new-born field mouse. Mask free, smiling faces; people hugging; restaurants packed with cheery customers …What brave new world was this?!

As I adjust to life outside the prison walls of Oz-catraz, I yearn for that far off epoch, B.C. (Before Covid) and wonder what the world will look like A.D. (After Delta)? But one thing we’ve learnt is to cherish friends and family and never take a day for granted. I fully intend to carpe diem like there’s no tomorrow. And if you’re lucky enough to be near your loved ones, hug them hard, because it’s truly heart breaking when you can’t.

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